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Number of pupils taking foreign languages

  at GCSE has been described as a "catastrophe" for the country by headteachers.

Figures show the numbers plummeted by more than 64,000 this year, with French down 14.4 per cent to 272,140 and German 13.7 per cent to 105,288 as evidence grew of youngsters deserting core subjects for easier options. The take-up of science subjects also fell by about 8,000.

Yesterday's results are the first since ministers made foreign languages voluntary for 14 to 16-year-olds a year ago. An even bigger slump is predicted next year when the full impact on a two-year GCSE course becomes clear.

But this year's students have scored the biggest rise in the percentage of A* to C-grade passes awarded for 13 years. They were up from 59.2 per cent to 61.2 per cent. The number of A* and A-grade passes also rose, by one percentage point to 18.4 per cent. The overall pass rate went up by 0.2 percentage points to 97.8 per cent. But the rise in top-grade passes was partly due to weaker candidates in languages being withdrawn from the exam.

This made the proportion of top-grade passes in French and German higher, 60.3 per cent compared with 53.7 per cent in French and 66.6 per cent compared to 59.6 per cent in German.

Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, the chief executive of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, the umbrella body representing the exam boards, said: "The improvement [in A* to C-grade passes] in part reflects the decline in modern foreign language entries. Less able candidates are increasingly less likely to take these subjects."

Leaders of the country's two state school headteachers' organisations and the National Union of Teachers all demanded the Government reverse its decision to make languages voluntary. David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The collapse in languages is a catastrophe." John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, added: "Next year will be lower. I think the figures are in free fall. We are losing a generation of linguists."

Isabella Moore, THE director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, the national resource centre for language teachers, said: "Language learning has a unique contribution to make to intellectual and social development. It enhances employability and life chances."

Ministers are planning to boost the take-up of languages in primary schools, giving every child the right to study them from the age of seven by 2010. But headteachers' leaders said the results of this would not filter through to GCSE until 2019. Heads also warned that schools and pupils were "playing the system", opting for softer subjects which would help their schools do well in exam league tables by improving their exam performance..

A rise in take-up of individual science subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology was more than offset by a drop of 65,000 in the numbers taking the GCSE double science award. PE went up to 10,060 (7.5 per cent) to 144,194. Media studies also rose by 5,654 (13 per cent) to 42,483.

But ministers were heartened by a rise in the number of top-grade passes in the core subjects of maths and English. The A* to C pass rate in maths went up by 1.7 percentage points to 53.4 per cent, the largest rise for five years. In English, it increased from 59.9 per cent to 60.9 per cent.

'I came out of the exam with a smile'

Armaan Genomal, 6, GCSE B-grade

A six-year-old boy who was celebrating a GCSE in information and communication technology said he wanted to grow up to be an inventor so he could "touch clouds". Armaan Genomal, from St John's Wood in north-west London, is said to be the youngest recipient of a GCSE in the country. He was awarded a B grade.

Armaan was in a class of eight pupils aged just six and seven who took the exam after studying with Ryde Teaching Services in Bushey, Hertfordshire. He completed the course in just nine months; it normally takes 16-year-olds two years.

Armaan said: "It was quite easy, actually. I came out of the exam with a smile." He said he preferred the practical parts of the course to the theory. "I really liked the spreadsheets and things like that. I checked my answers 19 times in the second exam." Armaan now plans to turn his attentions to GCSE French. "Then every time I go to France I can speak their language."

Armaan's mother, Kavita, said she was "very excited and proud" of her son "whatever his grade". She added: "He could read when he was two. Some kids just have to learn things."

Mike Ryde, who tutored the boys, said: ["The class] again demonstrated that children of average ability can achieve academic success regardless of age."

Girl who fought to wear Islamic dress

Shabina Begum, 16, five GCSE passes

A Muslim girl who missed two years' tuition and sued her school over the right to wear full Islamic dress is celebrating five top-grade GCSE passes.

Shabina Begum, now 16, completed three years of GCSE study in just one year at Putteridge High School in Luton after she was sent home from her former school for wearing the jilbab gown.

She took her fight to the Court of Appeal where judges said the school had unlawfully excluded her - denying her the right to practise her religion or provide her with an education.

During the two years of legal battles Miss Begum was kept away from school and was only able to sit her exams when she moved to a new school which allows the dress. Yesterday she was celebrating a B grade in art and design and C grade passes in English, maths, textiles and religious studies.

Miss Begum said: "Considering I missed two years and had to do everything on my own, I am very proud. It was really difficult for me, it was just down to hours and hours of after-school study."

When she switched to Putteridge High School, she was given the choice to drop back a year to take her exams but decided to work harder and complete them - thus staying with the same age group.

She said she was "not too sure" about her plans but added: "I want to get into sciences, medicine or pharmacology, something like that."

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